T.S Eliot's The Waste Land: Fire-Igniting Water

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T.S. Eliot in the twentieth-century wrote what is today widely-regarded as one of the most important text of modernist poems, “The Waste Land.” This poem evaluates many aspects of ancient and contemporary culture and customs, and how the contemporary culture has degraded into a wasteland. In “The Waste Land,” Eliot conjures, through allusions to multiple religions and works of literature in five separate sections, a fragmented and seemingly disjointed poem. Eliot repeatedly alludes to western and eastern cultural foundation blocks to illustrate the cultural degradation prevalent in the modern era of England. One specific eastern example is brought up in the third section of the poem, which T.S. Eliot names “Fire Sermon,” an allusion to Buddha's sermon that preaches the path to ridding one’s self of suffering. T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land” alludes to Buddhism and Buddha’s “ Fire Sermon” in order to shed light on humanity’s detrimental condition, and offers a remedy through the themes of birth, rebirth, and the symbols of water and fire.
Before even reaching the allusion to the Buddha’s sermon, Eliot has already begun to set up parallels that have a connection with the teachings relayed in the sermon. In the first section of “The Waste Land,” titled “The Burial of the Dead,” Eliot gives signs that suggest an impending rebirth; specifically, when the narrator poses questions regarding a corpse that has been planted in a garden. The narrator’s questions, “Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?” (72) are indicators of an expectation of rebirth because the questions imply not if it will bloom but when it will bloom. In other words, the narrator asks not will it bloom at all or will it begin to sprout, but “Has it begun” and ...

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...guise, for just like the awakened Buddha who has rid himself of suffering and trishna, the dead corpse mentioned in the first section also has no desire, no eye-consciousness -- it is not conscious of feeling, touching, smelling, or any form of sensation. Unaffected by the fire, the dead corpse has the discipline and with that discipline a rebirth may take place where “Shantih shantih shantih” (line 433) or “The peace which passeth understanding” is at last received and the suffering is at last ended. No more suffering in feel, touch, smell, taste, mind -- no more suffering in sight.

Works Cited

Henry Clark Warren, Buddhism in Translations (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1922), pp. 350-51
Saunders, E. Dale. “Buddha and Buddhism.” Encyclopedia Americana. 2008. Grolier Online. 14 Mar 2008

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